Neil Young’s haunting, mysterious, weirdly compelling title track from his epochal 1970 album, lushly arranged and sung here with delicate assuredness by K.D. Lang, who’s one of many to cover it, perhaps without understanding it any better than most of her contemporaries, Young himself included, if you were to believe some of his statements over the years. When Dolly Parton set out to record her own version on a dream team album with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, she decided to grab the bull by the horns, and simply phoned Neil for the explanation. This is from Wikipedia:
“When we were doing the Trio album, I asked Linda and Emmy what (the song) meant, and they didn’t know. So we called Neil Young, and he didn’t know. We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said, ‘Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.'”
This was, of course, baloney – Neil was either being forgetful, or was simply too weary to give her the straight answer – because After the Gold Rush is actually quite straightforward under its surrealist patina, and concerns exactly what you’d expect from taking in its giveaway line, Look at Mother Nature on the run in the Nineteen-Seventies: It’s a vision of planetary evacuation in the wake of environmental catastrophe, based on the script for a science fiction movie for which Neil hoped to compose the score. Nobody seems to remember how Young got ahold of the now long-lost draft for After the Gold Rush, authored by actor Dean Stockwell, which was written as a sort of Dennis Hopper-inspired hippie cautionary tale about the last days of a doomed California (a state largely formed out of the masses who flocked west in the gold rush of 1849). Of course the movie was never produced, but the script really struck a chord in Young, perhaps in part because its final apocalyptic scenes were set in a bar called the Corral, a favourite hang-out of Neil’s in Topanga Canyon, California, where both Young and Stockwell had homes at the time.
Viewed through this lens, the song’s generally mournful tone, and its Noah’s Ark-like imagery of the interplanetary space vessels being loaded to take Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the great beyond, don’t sound at all like the fevered hallucinations of a drug-addled mystic; it’s simply Neil’s dreamy vision of a lost golden age, and what environmental death leading to the end of the world might look like, which these days, as California burns and the East goes underwater, seems almost beyond prescient, and into Nostradamus territory.
The much more spartan original, with its delicate piano and sad, graceful flugelhorn accompaniment (supplied by session player Bill Peterson), remains a thing of pristine beauty, and is attached below.
Hard to believe, but for some, the writing was already that clearly on the wall over 50 years ago.